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Organization, Adjustment, and Classroom Achievement

by John C. Glidewell - 1961

It is the purpose of this paper to raise a series of questions about the processes involved in the development of social organization in the community and in the classroom, about the appearance and course of behavior disorders in individual children in the classroom, and about the variation in the rates of achievement of children in the classroom.

IT IS THE PURPOSE of this paper to raise a series of questions about the processes involved in the development of social organization in the community and in the classroom, about the appearance and course of behavior disorders in individual children in the classroom, and about the variation in the rates of achievement of children in the classroom.

Most of these questions were stimulated by attempts to organize and interpret data from current research on mental health in the schools. While the research was not designed to answer these queries, it did provide data which provoked them. Samples of such data will be cited, not with intent to substantiate any hypothesis, but with the hope that the data will stimulate others to ask new questions, more clear and better formulated to guide research on issues of mental health in the classroom.


The social organization of the world's population is currently undergoing change at unprecedented rates. One aspect of the change is that the world's resources—objects, people, ideas, skills, and feelings—are becoming much more readily available to the individuals within the organizations. The rate of change appears to be a catalytic function: Change makes more resources available, and the expanded resources in turn increase the rate of change. Thus, over time, the rate increases geometrically; and, over space, the more "highly developed" the area, the faster is the rate of change.

In the United States, the rates of change in social organization have been most accelerated. The consequence is a fluid, highly specialized, and tremendously complex social organization. The implications of such changes for education have been repeatedly emphasized, but one characteristic of the pattern of change seems to have particular meaning for mental health in the classroom: the increasing emphasis on specialization within all forms of social organization.

Specialization is necessary because the individual seeks to have available many more resources than he, alone, can provide. Such organized specialization entails complementary and reciprocal dependency. Each person must be dependent on others to provide for him and the social system objects, ideas, skills, and even feelings. Self-development must to a significant degree, therefore, be given up in maintaining the individual's particular specialization. Such organized specialization requires dependability and discipline, for the community wishes to be sure that the needed resources will be reliably provided when and where they are needed.

The availability of resources to a simple, small social organization is limited by the environmental and personal potentials of its members. Each member must provide much for himself simply because no one else can do it better. Each member, accordingly, may enjoy considerable autonomy in his self-support, for only few others are affected by the time, place, or the manner in which he does his self-supporting work. The lonesome cowboy has a whole prairie full of freedom, but there are very close limits on the resources available on the prairie.

As a social organization grows in size, more and more varied resources become available, and more narrow individual specialization will increase the total (and tie per capita) resources. Such greater detail of specialization, however, means that new and much more complicated norms of complementarity and reciprocity must be established. Such norms provide for both equity and differentiation in the interchange of resources among individuals (9). Discipline must be established to insure that the norms are met, that the needed resources are dependably provided by the experts to the others in the social system, in the "right" places, at the "right" times, and for the "right" people. The greater the size and complexity of the social organization, the more difficult are the tasks of establishing dependability, of training the members to do the "right" things. It is not surprising, then, that of the behavior symptoms reported by a sample of 800 mothers in St. Louis County, Missouri, the one symptom most closely related to maladjustment at school was trouble getting along with other children (7).


Is it possible that the seriousness, in the eyes of cultural agents (like teachers), of these problems of getting along with others is a manifestation of the growing concern among such agents about the new, elusive, and complicated norms of interpersonal interchange in a society of constantly growing complexity? Are these really the reflections of the severity of the problems of elementary school children, or are they the reflections of the reciprocity anxieties of the adults who must judge the "adjustment" of children?

In the judgment of teachers, on the average, about 8% of children in elementary school classrooms are sufficiently disturbed to need professional psychiatric attention. At the same time, repeated studies of referrals from schools show that, on the rare occasions when they have full opportunity, teachers actually refer less than half of the children they judge to be "in need" of referral; and, from year to year, teacher to teacher, the child's perceived disturbance changes to a significant extent (1, 2, 3, 8, 11, 14, 18, 23, 24, 25).

Some of this high disturbance rate and relatively low referral rate can be accounted for by the fact that teachers tend to use referral as a last resort. In some cases, they seem to feel that the stigma of referral will disturb the child and family (and the teacher?) more than treatment will help them. Some of the ratings of disturbance and the changes from year to year and teacher to teacher may be accounted for by the fact that some children simply do not fit the classroom social system. The various social, emotional, and instrumental roles, formal and informal, allocated by the system include too few which are congruent to the expressive or instrumental resources of the individual child. This lack of goodness of fit into the roles available in classroom activities means that the behavior of the individual child very frequently demands, explicitly or implicitly, some change in the allocation of roles, resources, and rewards in the classroom social system. Such changes entail tensions in the system. Demands for change can be, and often are, resisted or ignored in the interest of avoiding anticipated tension. Researchers such as Thelen (21) and Henry (13) have presented data suggesting classroom social systems avoid, resist, suppress, disguise, deny, and otherwise defend against the prospect of disruptive changes which reduce the security, predictability, and dependability of the existing organization.

From time to time, new roles or changes in existing roles do occur, gradually or abruptly. The resulting increase in variation among available roles enhances the opportunity for individuals to find functional roles which better fit their own unique combination of resources. Such changes, however, entail some degree of disorganization, tension, and lack of secure predictability for the members of the system. Too fast or too drastic changes can, and sometimes do, provoke serious destruction, restriction, or disorganization of objects, people, ideas, skills, and feelings.

Logically, the constructiveness of any proposed (or demanded) change can be judged in terms of whether the improvement is worth the price in temporary disorganization and tension. Psychologically, however, is it not likely that individuals who are well integrated into existing social organizations tend to resist any modification of the rate or direction of present social change in the system? Just what are the individual differences in resistance to change in classroom social structure?


To some extent, social-emotional disturbance or maladjustment as seen by teachers may well be a matter of socially resisted individual demands (explicit or implicit) by a child for modifications of the current rate or direction of change in the social organization of the classroom. Accordingly, teachers continue to hope that some new approach in classroom management, in classroom composition, in the construction of learning experiences, or in expressive interpersonal relations will provide a solution to the problem. There can always be hope that the child will fit better in some new social role yet to appear or to be created in the shared activities of the classroom social system. Such a state of affairs would explain the fact that teachers do not refer all disturbed children and the fact that teachers' ratings of adjustment vary somewhat for the same child from year to year and teacher to teacher.

Current data suggest that the appearance and development of classroom social structure is a remarkably circular, self-reinforcing process. The process begins early in the year with typical individual differences in self-esteem. Children low in self-esteem tend to produce, initially, a defensive behavior output. They tend to make unreasonable demands or to resist becoming involved at all. In both cases, the demands and the withdrawals, the defensive child's behavior output is either actively combatted or it is ignored by children of higher self-esteem. Those low in self-esteem perceive and are sensitive to the lack of support they receive and the lack of influence they exert. They lower still further their own self-evaluation, and they become even more defensive in behavior output. The circle continues and the low end of the social structure becomes further reinforced and established. In the same way, the children initially high in self-esteem find that their relatively non-defensive behavior output influences others and is supported by others. Their self-evaluation is enhanced; they make more realistic social judgments, and they become even more influential and socially rewarded.

Thus, over one school year, the most stable dimensions of classroom social structure are (1) the affect structure, based on "near-sociometric" ratings on a scale indicating the degree to which the ratee was liked or disliked by the rater, (2) the expertness structure, based on who is seen as expert and inexpert in classroom activities, and (3) the power structure, based on who is perceived by the rater as able to get others to do what he wants them to. A fourth structure, based on ability to use physical coercion, seems less stable (16). Not all children fall into the same positions on all aspects of social structure, of course. A few children find themselves at the top and a few at the bottom of all the "totem-poles," but many children find themselves in different positions on the different dimensions.


Previously cited findings show that teachers rate about 8% of their elemenmentary pupils as in need of some professional help because of social-emotional problems. At the same time, they refer consistently less than 4%. Gruenberg has suggested1 that one might expect similar rates if one identified in any business organization, the members whose competency the management held in question; in any club, the members who were seen as poor members; in any bureaucratic organization, the staff members whom the executive would like to transfer—in other words, in any social system, the members who don't "fit in." If one examined any such social system, 'would one find in fact that, in the eyes of the powerful members, 8 to 10 per cent of the members could not be trained to take acceptable roles in any approved manner?

How does one distinguish mental ill health from non-conformity? Or is mental ill health so culture-relative that it must always be defined simply as behavior which is deviant from cultural or social norms? Is there a practical approach for a teacher who must decide whether to treat the child to fit and learn from the system or to treat the system to fit and learn from the child?

Jules Henry (13) has reported the following as a typical excerpt from his extensive observations of elementary classrooms:

The children have been shown movies of birds. The first film ended with a picture of a baby bird.

Teacher: Did the last bird look as if he would be blue?

The children did not seem to understand the "slant" of the question, and answered somewhat hesitantly, yes.

Teacher: I think he looked more like a robin, didn't he?

Children (in chorus): Yes!

This is one of a large number of instances, distributed through all grades, in which children exhibit their docility largely through giving the teacher what he wants. In elementary schools of the middle-class, the children get an intensive eight-year-long training in hunting for the right signals and giving the teacher the response wanted.

The influence of the complexity of the larger social system on the classroom members (including teachers) can reflect the more serious and extensive consequences of interpersonal conflicts in a complex system. Conflict between the storekeeper of 1910 and his hired man was of only passing interest to his neighbors. Conflict between a chain store manager in 1960 and Teamsters' Union truck driver can interrupt the food supply of a city of millions. Involvement in interpersonal conflict was (often misguidedly) a sign of "backbone" and integrity in a man subject to organizational pressures in the industrial world of 1910; involvement in interpersonal conflict may be (equally often misguidedly) the sign of "neurosis" in a man subject to organizational pressures in the industrial world of 1960. Is it possible that involvement in interpersonal conflict is automatically a sign of "neurosis" in a child subject to social pressure in a classroom in 1960? Is it possible that the community allocates rewards to teachers and children in the interest of avoiding the conflict involved in "bucking the system"? How often does the teacher find herself inadvertently engaged in a kind of community-approved confidence game to create expectations of great reward and approval for peaceful conformity in the classroom but of psychiatric "treatment" and guilt for conflict and originality?

It would be much too glib to answer these questions positively without adequate evidence. It is instructive to find, however, that in rating the school adjustment of some 800 children, a sample of 90 teachers in St. Louis County rated middle-class children as better adjusted than either upper-class or lower-class children. Similarly, they rated girls as better adjusted than boys (6). All but one of the 90 teachers making the ratings were middle-class women. Do they tend to see the children who are most like them as best adjusted?


Lippitt and Gold (16) indicate that girls in low positions in the social structure of the classroom are actively affectionate or passively withdrawn in their approach to teachers, and teachers respond to them with noncritical remarks about 75% of the time. Low status boys, on the other hand, do not show such positive approaches. They are more aggressive and troublesome, and their teachers respond with noncritical remarks only 40% of the time.

Teachers must maintain the organized learning activity of the classroom or answer to themselves, the school, and the community. They must respond critically to disruptive behavior if they are to take a responsible position as a community agent of socialization. They cannot, furthermore, overtly hurt the withdrawn girls who are deprived of support from their classmates and so poignantly asking for support from their teacher—at least, not until the demands become quite excessive or become demands for false approval.

What is there about the social role of the sexes at school which leads boys to be seen by their teachers as disturbed and referred to clinics for treatment twice as often as are girls (23, 24)? Among adults, it is the women who most often appear for psychiatric care. Is it possible that the sex roles defined by the social system fit girls better during childhood and fit men better during adulthood? If so, how?

Mensh (17) found that teachers' ratings of adjustment of both aggressive acting out and withdrawn children indicate that problems of aggression were considered no more serious than problems of withdrawal. In fact, when they rated lower-class boys, teachers saw withdrawal symptoms as significantly more serious than aggressive symptoms.

It has often been proposed that middle-class teachers view with alarm the aggressive behavior of lower class boys, but such proposals assume that the standards of teachers do not fit lower-class children because of the middle-class condemnation of overt aggression and approval of passive conformity and withdrawal. Mensh's findings would not support such an interpretation. The teachers reporting in his study were most certainly middle class, and they clearly considered withdrawal and aggression as equally symptomatic of mental ill-health.

But these data are not at odds with such proposals as Green's (10) that middle-class males are caught between values which condemn explicit physical attack on the one hand, but encourage aggressive competition on the other in studies, games, and economic achievement. If it is true that middle-class parents and teachers confuse boys about when to fight and when to avoid fights, it is conceivable that teachers would perceive both acting out and withdrawal as symptomatic of emotional disturbance about half the times they occur.

Aggressive, "acting out" behavior is typically unsuccessful in achieving its apparent goal but characteristic of low status boys in the classroom (16). Successful influence involves assertive but not physically coercive activity and is characteristic of high status boys and girls. A realistic look at the similarities and differences shows overlap as well as separation, however. The behavior output of the children shows components which could reflect conflict between norms of conformity and aggressive competition for power; but, taken altogether, this conflict tends to be greatest in upper- and lower-class boys, not middle-class boys.


How important is the teacher as a determinant of social structure in the classroom? Lippitt and Gold (16) clearly proposed that the children who, in the eyes of their classmates, were more influential and more popular impress their teacher with a significantly more favorable mental health picture. Flanders (4, 5) reports that students are not equally sensitive to differences in teachers' patterns of influence. Students who are prone to be dependent are more sensitive to differences in patterns of teacher influence. Students not prone to dependency are little affected by variations in teacher influence attempts.

On the basis of these findings, one might surmise that younger, more dependent children are more influenced by the teacher's role than are older children. If it is true that the teacher simply reinforces the competitive demands of the larger culture and the internal power structure of the classroom, one would expect fast development and the stabilization of classroom social structure in the lower grades. Actually, Stringer (19, 20), in examining relationships between achievement rates and mental health, found a marked cyclical variation in achievement rates during the early elementary grades which leveled and became more stabilized in the later grades. Thus, stabilization seems to proceed more rapidly and to a higher degree among older school children.

Altogether, work such as Haggard's (12) and Stringer's (19, 20) reflects the basic mutual influence between achievement and social-emotional stability. Further work by Stringer promises to demonstrate that fluctuations in achievement reflect fluctuations in the social-emotional state of affairs in the classroom and in other social systems (primarily the family) of which the child is a member. The teacher's role in the classroom social system and its effects on class and individual achievement is significant, but not so significant as grade level. The teacherer's possible employment of social-emotional states in the interest of achievement may be limited in its effects by the developmental stages of her children and the preoccupations of the larger social system. The conflicted, passive, or aggressive low status children show both emotional and academic instability.


Urbanization and sub-urbanization rates are at an all-time peak, and population mobility rates are record-breaking. One family in three moves every year. Relationships have appeared between mobility and school adjustment (15).

Movement from one community to another means at least some change in the norms and expectations with which one must live. If it were the fact that school maladjustment is simply a matter of deviancy from community, school, and classroom norms, then movement from one school to another would itself be sufficient cause for maladjustment. But mobility is not clearly so regularly associated with maladjustment as the preceding statements imply.

We can assume, however, current population mobility requires special attention to the induction of new families into neighborhoods and cities and special attention to the induction of new children into schools and classrooms. Under such conditions, what variations in classroom management will insure that both the child and the classroom can learn from the induction process? With mobility rates likely to increase, this question is a particularly fruitful one for research, focusing as it does on how a widely shared experience con be constructively put to work.


Can it be demonstrated that as the social organization of the community becomes more complex, community agents, including educators, become more concerned about interpersonal conflict and more constrained to reduce or restrict it?

How accurate is the proposition that teachers recognize that individual maladjustment is sometimes a function of the rigidity of classroom social organization, and work for or wait for social change in the classroom to mitigate the maladjustment of an individual child?

What is there about the social roles of the sexes that leads to differential maladjustment of male school children, to sex bias in the judgments of teachers, or to both?

Just what are the standards of child behavior at school that lead to the adjustment difficulties of upper-class and lower-class boys, to the social class bias in the judgment of teachers, or to both?

Is it possible that conflict between norms of conformity and norms of competition are more disturbing in lower-class and upper-class boys than in middle-class boys?

Is the social class distribution of teachers' judgments of disturbance quite different in predominantly middle-class groups from what it is in predominantly lower-class or upper-class groups?

Do community norms and the developmental stages of children have greater influence on the form and flexibility of classroom social structure than the patterns of teacher behavior?

To what extent does the social structure of the classroom correlate with achievement as well as adjustment? To what extent is a change to a new form of classroom social organization followed by a change in achievement as well as adjustment? What is the impact of social and physical mobility on achievement and adjustment?

How can parents, teachers, and administrators both develop creatively predesigned social inventions and support spontaneous constructions in learning experiences at home and at school so as to create social structures which will provide both (1) enough basic regularity and predictability to secure the stage of development involved and (2) enough flexibility to cover the very wide variety of instrumental and expressive roles needed to encompass, exercise, and strengthen the myriad resources presented by the individual children involved?


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1 In a personal communication from Dr. E. A. Gruenberg on 26 August, 1960.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 62 Number 4, 1961, p. 274-274
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3187, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 9:05:49 AM

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